You might not know this, but this film was one of the primary inspirations for doing the 60/60 List in the first place. After listening to an episode of Reel Insight, there was a discussion about Saving Private Ryan. Of course, I soon admitted that I hadn't seen it, which opened a personal floodgate of other must-see films I hadn't seen. It's too bad this film didn't end up #20 on the list, as that would have been cool. Alas, we'll stick with #19.
For those who are like myself and hadn't yet seen the film, it follows Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) during World War II. After a horrible round of battles, 3 of the 4 Ryan brothers are killed in action. In order to stop their mother from the ultimate devastation of losing all of her children at the same time, orders come down from the government to send in a team to extract Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) from the war and send him home to what's left of his family. Joining Miller's team are Sgt. Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Private Reiben (Edward Burns), sniper Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel), Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), and translator Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies). Also showing up for bit cameos are Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, Dennis Farina, Leland Orser, and Nathan Fillion (who wasn't really a name at the time, but was a fun spot now).
Like Black Hawk Down (BHD), this was one of those "who isn't in this movie?" movies. The acting chops were top notch, though I personally enjoyed Barry Pepper and Jeremy Davies the most. It took me a while to realize it was Jeremy Davies--I recognized the actor, but I had to look it up before realizing it was Faraday from LOST. Anyway, Pepper was pretty awesome as the sniper, but it was Davies that had the most character development.
And that's what I was totally missing from BHD. This film is superior in every way. The cinematography is really good and very gritty. And while the visuals and gore in the aforementioned film were, well... there... this one took it to an upsetting level. I'm a fan of horror movies, and gore doesn't bother me all that much. But the realism in this film very nearly made me sick to my stomach. When a certain character dies from a shot to the torso, and all you're seeing is blood continually pouring from the open wound as he begs for morphine and cries for his mother... yeah, it's intense. And the violence starts off almost immediately. There's a brief intro that leads into a flashback, but after they hit that beach, the body count starts to skyrocket. I think my jaw was open for almost the entirety of that first 30 minutes. And it didn't shy back from there.
The movie is slightly shy of 3 hours, but it didn't feel it. I was captivated the entire time, despite feeling uncomfortable through the majority of that time span. It was able to keep things fresh by continually moving on to different side-missions while they traveled the countryside looking for Private Ryan. From liberating a town and taking down a sniper to removing a hidden threat from a radar station to setting up a final line of defense at a bridge (and more), you're continually kept on your toes on what's going to happen next. And you know that nobody is safe and any of them can die at any time, which only helps build the tension and unease.
What I really enjoyed was the fact that there was character development. It wasn't just a bunch of empty shells going on a rescue mission like in BHD. These were real people. You came to like or care about them. And even if you didn't know them that well, they had personalities that you could latch on to. As I said before Davies goes through the most change, starting as a guy who hadn't handled a gun since basic training to, well... I don't want to spoil it. He's no Rambo or anything, but when he realizes an earlier mistake has come back to haunt him (a fact I didn't catch at first), he has to face his conscience. It's a painful moment for him.
This film has been touted as one of the most realistic war films ever made, and I can definitely see why. By the end of the film, I was emotionally drained. And I'll be honest, I don't cry very often in movies--and I still didn't here--but the notion crossed my mind on multiple occasions. The film had some of the best and brutal war scenes I've seen, and that mixed with really good characters, a good story, and... good-to-great everything, that makes this, honestly, one of if not the best war film I've seen. Of course, I still have a handful of films left for the rest of this month, but I'm not sure if any of the ones I have lined up will top what this one accomplished.